[PHOTOS]: Kibeho holy shrine: Rwanda's unexploited tourism cash cow

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A section of the congregation in front of the shrine during last year's Assumption Day celebrations. (Emmanuel Ntirenganya)

It’s a cold Saturday morning as I make my way to Kibeho Holy Shrine. Being my first time to make a pilgrimage to the shrine, I don’t know what to expect. Of course I have heard a lot about the shrine and the appearance of the Virgin Mary to some rural girls at the very place where the shrine stands. The Apparitions are the reason thousands of pilgrims from all corners of the globe visit the shrine, especially on August 15, and in December.

The holy shrine situated in the remote district of Nyaruguru stands on the ground where the Virgin Mary appeared before three little-known school girls. This is some three decades ago in 1981.

Since then, believers (Catholics) have been flocking Kibeho to witness Virgin Mary’s Apparitions and to pay homage.

The Apparitions were confirmed and recognised by the Catholic Church in 2001. Since then, the pilgrimages to the shrine take place twice every year, in August and December.

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Pilgrims collect water at a communal point. The shrine needs better facilities.

Despite thousands of local people that trek to Kibeho and those that come from regional countries and overseas, the opportunities presented by the holy shrine remain largely untapped.

Its potential as a religious tourist attraction has not been exploited by the church or the government to boost tourism arrivals and earnings.

As I was going to the shrine, I noticed that the road from Huye District to Kibeho is relatively good.

However, commercial activities at the shrine present a contrasting picture; they are dominated by petty trade, and vendors of religious symbols, like the rosary, crucifixes, and portraits of the Virgin Mary and Jesus Christ, among others. The vendors operate in somewhat disorganised manner. Foodstuffs, like ‘local’ cakes, French fries, and cassava, are sold in unhygienic and dusty stalls. A keen observer will soon realise that there is a lot that has to be done to improve the situation in the two cases above.

Religious items are on high demand on this day; therefore a trade bazaar in these items is ideal and would present the vendors a competitive advantage pricewise.

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Pilgrims with their offerings. The event is also covered by the international press. 

Ngaruko Slyviesten, a vendor I found selling such items on a dirty carpet spread out on the ground, shared his experience.

“Because we are operating in an unhygienic environment, buyers take advantage to pay little,” he says.

One would ask about the opportunities presented by the shrine to locals and other ‘serious’ investors.

Hospitality and catering

Notre Damme Motel is the only modern facility that provides accommodation and descent food to pilgrims. It is strategically located at the entrance of the shrine.

When I visited the facility on Assumption Day last year, I found that all rooms had been booked the previous day, mostly by international and regional pilgrims. In fact, some pilgrims spend nights in open air sort of camps or makeshift shelters.

The demand for food was overwhelming, especially after Assumption Day service (marked on August 15 each year). The facility had underestimated the demand. I later learnt that they had just opened shop at the shrine, which could partly explain the challenge.

I realised that an enterprising business person can reap big at the shrine and in Kibeho neighbourhood if they did their homework well.

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Pilgrims at the entrance of the chapel waiting for prayers.

For instance, the food served by vendors is the kind that will ‘kill’ your appetite. Local porridge (igikoma) sold in dirty jerrycans by women from the neighbourhood as common item on the menu.

In fact, there is only one stall selling ‘real’ food. A middle-aged man, his wife and daughter are behind the food stall. At first, he ignores me. When he finally agrees to talk to me, Diojene Uwanyiriginje, says the job (food vending) helps him to supplement his meager income as a driver.

Unlike most of the stalls manned by porridge vendors, his is fairly clean and organised.

The food is, however, cold and looks like it was prepared overnight. To make matters worse, he has no heating facilities. With the number of clients growing by the minute, he is forced to serve the next clients on one bigger dish. They cannot complain because there is nowhere else to buy food.

His next clients are regional pilgrims as they can barely speak Kinyarwanda; they look skeptical and reluctant, but have no option but to eat the food.

Later, Uwanyiringije tells me it good the vendors are not taxed. On modernising and improving the workplace, he argues that that comes with additional operational costs. He however agrees that the place designated for selling different items at the shrine needs a face-lift.

Transport

Many pilgrims who flock the shrine every year use public means. The road from Huye to the holy shrine in Kibeho is relatively good, but not tarmac.

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Regional pilgrims from Uganda. (All photos by Emmanuel Ntirenganya)  

When one is going to the shrine, they face no challenge. However, going back after mass in the afternoon is another story. There are a multitude of pilgrims, but a handful of public transport vehicles. We waited for over two hours before we could get a taxi to Huye town.

This is a clear indication that transporters are ‘sleeping on the job’. This should be seen as an opportunity public transporters working or living in Huye District to make an extra buck. Besides, this would be killing two birds with one stone; providing a solution and making money.

Cultural tourism and free marketing for Rwanda

Rwanda is a beautiful country that has a lot to offer to regional and international people visiting.

Rwanda’s unique handicrafts and traditional dances can be promoted on the international and regional scene during this period. We could take advantage of the presence of the international media during these events to market the country as a top tourist destination.

So, entertainment and trade fairs, showcasing handicrafts and our unique culture can be organised prior and after the Assumption Day celebrations and other activities in a seamless manner.

Padre Ildephonse Bizimungu, a senior priest at Kibeho Holy Shrine, believes continued collaboration between the government and Catholic Church will could help promote Kibeho as a strong religious tourism destination.

Fr Bizimungu appreciates government’s support to the Holy Shrine and the community, including provision of security and healthcare services, especially when there are thousands of pilgrims at the shrine in August and December.

“A lot more can be done to promote this place as a religious tourism destination, and a vibrant business centre.

Government should work on things like roads, marketing and also give incentives to local entrepreneurs to come and establish businesses at the shrine,” says Bizimungu.

“The church is receptive to good ideas as long as they won’t hinder the purpose of pilgrimage.”

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